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The History of wikiHow in 7 Fascinating wikiHow Articles

wikiHow
wikiHow

Spend enough time looking stuff up on the Internet, and you’ll eventually run into the weird, fascinating, addictive, and surprisingly poignant world known as wikiHow. Want to know How to Be Sophisticated, Become a Writer, Survive in Federal Prison, Make the Letters of the English Alphabet, Kiss, or Get Six Pack Abs? Here is a place where a wondrous amalgam of human experience can show you the way. You may, in fact, be asked to share your own expertise in, say, dating, grilling zucchini, annoying your brother, or seizing opportunities, to name a few. It may be inevitable that you’ll be sucked in still further by hitting the “random article” button and find yourself learning How to Become a Musician, Survive a Long Fall, Concentrate on Studies, Make Candelabras from Old Bottles, or Treat a Migraine.

Tech entrepreneur Jack Herrick launched the site ten years ago after selling his previous venture, eHow. He had a clear mission—to “help anyone on the planet learn how to do anything”—which he decided couldn’t be achieved through content farming. Instead, he launched the wiki site, allowing for as many volunteers as possible to share their hard-won experiential knowledge. Now, the site has more than a million users, 183,000 articles, and 22 paid staffers. (The most thorough articles might have dozens or hundreds of “co-authors.”) It has turned down multiple venture capital offers in order to stay focused on its mission, instead making its profits mostly from Google ads and by remaining headquartered in a house in Palo Alto, California. 

In honor of its decade anniversary, here’s a look at wikiHow’s history, told through seven of its biggest, best, strangest, and most useful posts.

1. How to Climb the Stairs with a Broken Leg

Matt Garcia may be only 19, but he’s had plenty of life experiences to share via wikiHow articles. The 21 articles started by the Canadian biology student include this very specific set of instructions, which he wrote while recovering from surgery. He has a heart condition and ended up on life support after having a heart attack in his mid-teens. One of the tubes required for the machines caused nerve damage to his left leg, putting him in a cast and on crutches. “It did feel really good to share that knowledge,” Garcia says.

In fact, many posts come out of users’ real-life experiences. One of community manager Krystle Chung’s favorite articles tackles How to Toilet Train Your Cat: “The part that I get a kick out of is one of the tips is, ‘Do not teach your cat to flush.’ It turns out your cat will flush all day long. You couldn’t hire someone to research that tip. Somebody actually found out the hard way.”

2. How to Love

The home improvement, cooking, and health articles make sense: They are clear processes with specific steps or problems with straightforward solutions. But some of  wikiHow’s most popular posts might as well be titled How to Be Human: They address kissing, getting a girl to like you, getting over a breakup, and knowing if a guy likes you, among other emotional topics. If only a computer could spit out answers to all of life’s dilemmas, right? Maybe it can’t exactly do that, but it can at least help. “It’s almost as if you have a friend to talk to when you read these,” says wikiHow COO Elizabeth Douglas. “Wikipedia is all factual information, things that are true or false. You don’t find the depth and the breadth and the empathy and the understanding of humans there. wikiHow is about people sharing their experience with others.”

3. How to Help a Spouse With Depression

Nicole Willson, a 33-year-old in Portland, Oregon, has been active on wikiHow since its earliest days, attracted to the idea because of her master’s degree in library science. And though she’s started more than 100 articles, her research standards and expertise make her even better at improving others’ work. When she first encountered the post on helping a spouse with depression, for example, it included tips about taking your partner out for a nice dinner. “If someone is chronically depressed,” she says, “that’s not going to help.” With her edits and others’, it’s become a thorough guide with an eye toward legitimate mental health resources.

In another article, about how to treat a common cold, she spotted a recommendation to get a Slurpee from 7-Eleven. “In those cases, I look for reliable sources for information to add,” she says. “It’s about information literacy. You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Of course, that’s exactly why wikiHow—or any wiki—engenders skepticism. The site does have rules about what kinds of topics can be posted (in short, nothing that can cause harm) and has hundreds of volunteers as well as a few paid staffers reviewing every post. But Willson is also proof that the system mostly works: Some users might have good ideas for posts, even if they don’t have the knowledge to back them up. Others can come along and add their knowledge. As contributor Betsy Megas says, “The fastest way to a good page is a bad page.” 

4. How to Make Jello Shots

Willson has also used her research skills for less healthy topics, like contributing to wikiHow’s vast Jello Shot oeuvre. (Besides this introductory article that Willson started, there are also separate entries on specific kinds of Jello shots, from those including caffeine to various flavors to theme-party ideas.) “That’s what I like about wikiHow,” she says. “You’re not going to see this stuff in Martha Stewart Living. You don’t have to just do articles around what gets you ads.”

Maybe Martha Stewart and her ilk should reconsider, though, given the readership such entries attract. “It’s fun to see how the traffic changes as days and weeks go on,” Herrick says. “On New Year’s Eve you see How to Make Jello Shots spike, then like clockwork the next morning it’s How to Get Rid of a Hangover.” 

5. How to Sew a Cloth Baseball

Lois Wade made her first edit as a registered wikiHow user in 2007 and soon found herself relying on the site for what she calls her “frugal-to-a-fault” lifestyle. (Not surprisingly, she makes her living as a bookkeeper, based in Rancho Cordova, Calif.) She helped her teenaged son make a duct-tape wallet using wikiHow instructions, then started writing on the site herself with How to Sew a Cloth Baseball. (Her son wanted a pin cushion for home ec class that wasn’t that standard tomato-with-attached-strawberry.) Since then, she’s started more than 200 articles, including How to Make a Kitchen Towel Angel and How to Design and Sew Cold Weather Mitts for Drop Handlebars. “It’s dumbfounding,” she says of the online feedback she’s gotten. “If I advertised in my home area, ‘Come Learn How to Make a Towel Angel,’ I might, if I were lucky, get 10 or 15 people to come over. But on wikiHow, I’ve got millions.” That’s all the motivation she and many others like her need: “I just like helping people. I don’t watch a lot of TV. This is my entertainment, and I don’t have to wait for this show to come on.”

6. How to Escape from a Sinking Car

“It’s one of those things where you’d think it’s a joke article,” Herrick says, “but it turns out this actually happens pretty frequently.” About 400 people die this way every year, and it’s a particular problem in Canada, where 10 percent of drowning deaths happen in vehicles. “We get a lot of people writing and saying that reading about what to do in this situation eases their anxiety,” he says.

These response-to-emergencies articles have demonstrated real results: wikiHow staff knows of at least two babies who have been delivered using wikiHow instructions, and one person who got critical medical attention thanks to How to Recognize the Warning Signs of a Stroke. Such articles have prompted wikiHow to invest in careful translation of the site into 12 other languages. How to Recognize the Symptoms of Appendicitis, for example, is particularly popular in Spanish.

7. How to Change the Oil in Your Car

Megyas, a mechanical engineer in Santa Clara, California, has started lots of practical articles, tackling everything from fixing a running toilet to couch-surfing. Despite the seemingly straightforward nature of such topics, she’s encountered a surprising number of heated debates among contributors: When she edited an article on How to Change the Oil in Your Car, for instance, she found out “how many people have strong opinions about how long you should let the oil drip out.” All of the frequent users have encountered clashes with others over article edits, but also say wikiHow is known for its sanguine approach to “edit wars.” The company’s leaders have worked to instill a culture of niceness—which emphasizes positive feedback and personal contact—that frequent users cite as the reason they’ve contributed so much. “We are nice to our community members,” Douglas says, “and we encourage them to be nice.” They even hold yearly gatherings for the active contributors, and the frequent users often speak of the site as “we” in conversation. “I find it hard to be offline for very long because of the community,” Garcia says. “It’s so hard to not be with them.”

All images via wikiHow.

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Food
Hate Red M&M's? You Need a Candy Color-Sorting Machine
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iStock

You don’t have to be a demanding rock star to live a life without brown M&M's or purple Skittles—all you need is some engineering know-how and a little bit of free time.

Mechanical engineering student Willem Pennings created a machine that can take small pieces of candy—like M&M's, Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, etc.—and sort them by color into individual piles. All Pennings needs to do is pour the candy into the top funnel; from there, the machine separates the candy—around two pieces per second—and dispenses all of it into smaller bowls at the bottom designated for each variety.

The color identification is performed with an RGB sensor that takes “optical measurements” of candy pieces of equal dimensions. There are limitations, though, as Pennings revealed in a Reddit Q&A: “I wouldn't be able to use this machine for peanut M&M's, since the sizes vary so much.”

The entire building process lasted from May through December 2016, and included the actual conceptualization, 3D printing (which was outsourced), and construction. The entire project was detailed on Pennings’s website and Reddit's DIY page.

With all of the motors, circuitry, and hardware that went into it, Pennings’s machine is likely too ambitious of a task for the average candy aficionado. So until a machine like this hits the open market, you're probably stuck buying bags of single-colored M&M’s in bulk online or sorting all of the candy out yourself the old fashioned way.

To see Pennings’s machine in action, check out the video below:

[h/t Refinery 29]

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Pop Culture
The Strange Hidden Link Between Silent Hill and Kindergarten Cop
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

by Ryan Lambie

At first glance, Kindergarten Cop and Silent Hill don't seem to have much in common—aside from both being products of the 1990s. At the beginning of the decade came Kindergarten Cop, the hit comedy directed by Ivan Reitman and starring larger-than-life action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the decade’s end came Silent Hill, Konami’s best-selling survival horror game that sent shivers down PlayStation owners’ spines.

As pop culture artifacts go, they’re as different as oil and water. Yet eagle-eyed players may have noticed a strange hidden link between the video game and the goofy family comedy.

In Silent Hill, you control Harry Mason, a father hunting for his daughter Cheryl in the eerily deserted town of the title. Needless to say, the things Mason uncovers are strange and very, very gruesome. Early on in the game, Harry stumbles on a school—Midwich Elementary School, to be precise—which might spark a hint of déjà vu as soon as you approach its stone steps. The building’s double doors and distinctive archway appear to have been taken directly from Kindergarten Cop’s Astoria Elementary School.

Could it be a coincidence?

Well, further clues can be found as you venture inside. As well as encountering creepy gray children and other horrors, you’ll notice that its walls are decorated with numerous posters. Some of those posters—including a particularly distinctive one with a dog on it—also decorated the halls of the school in Kindergarten Cop.

Do a bit more hunting, and you’ll eventually find a medicine cabinet clearly modeled on one glimpsed in the movie. Most creepily of all, you’ll even encounter a yellow school bus that looks remarkably similar to the one in the film (though this one has clearly seen better days).

Silent Hill's references to the movie are subtle—certainly subtle enough for them to pass the majority of players by—but far too numerous to be a coincidence. When word of the link between game and film began to emerge in 2012, some even joked that Konami’s Silent Hill was a sequel to Kindergarten Cop. So what’s really going on?

When Silent Hill was in early development back in 1996, director Keiichiro Toyama set out to make a game that was infused with influences from some of his favorite American films and TV shows. “What I am a fan of is occult stuff and UFO stories and so on; that and I had watched a lot of David Lynch films," he told Polygon in 2013. "So it was really a matter of me taking what was on my shelves and taking the more horror-oriented aspects of what I found.”

A scene from 'Silent Hill'
Divine Tokyoska, Flickr

In an interview with IGN much further back, in 2001, a member of Silent Hill’s staff also stated, “We draw our influences from all over—fiction, movies, manga, new and old.”

So while Kindergarten Cop is perhaps the most outlandish movie reference in Silent Hill, it’s by no means the only one. Cafe5to2, another prominent location in the game, is taken straight from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Elsewhere, you might spot a newspaper headline which references The Silence Of The Lambs (“Bill Skins Fifth”). Look carefully, and you'll also find nods to such films as The Shining, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and 12 Monkeys.

Similarly, the town’s streets are all named after respected sci-fi and horror novelists, with Robert Bloch, Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson among the most obvious. Oh, and Midwich, the name of the school? That’s taken from the classic 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, twice adapted for the screen as The Village Of The Damned in 1960 and 1995.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'Kindergarten Cop'
Universal Pictures

The reference to Kindergarten Cop could, therefore, have been a sly joke on the part of Silent Hill’s creators—because what could be stranger than modeling something in a horror game on a family-friendly comedy? But there could be an even more innocent explanation: that Kindergarten Cop spends so long inside an ordinary American school simply gave Toyama and his team plenty of material to reference when building their game.

Whatever the reasons, the Kindergarten Cop reference ranks highly among the most strange and unexpected film connections in the history of the video game medium. Incidentally, the original movie's exteriors used a real school, John Jacob Astor Elementary in Astoria, Oregon. According to a 1991 article in People Magazine, the school's 400 fourth grade students were paid $35 per day to appear in Kindergarten Cop as extras.

It’s worth pointing out that the school is far less scary a place than the video game location it unwittingly inspired, and to the best of our knowledge, doesn't have an undercover cop named John Kimble serving as a teacher there, either.

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